As low pay, privatisation and zero-hours contracts add to female workers’ woes, the UNISON national women’s conference agenda points the way towards a fighting future, Liz Payne argues.

Public-sector union Unison’s national women’s conference, which takes place in Southport from today through to Saturday, is the largest annual gathering of working women in Europe and its voice is very powerful. More than two-thirds of Unison members are women — the majority of them poorly paid and disadvantaged, disproportionately affected by the austerity agenda of a vicious Tory-led government and the profit-obsessed big-business interests it represents.

It is no exaggeration to say that the final agenda for debate in Southport is a damning indictment of five years of callous and deliberate destruction of the public sector in the interests of privatisation and profit.
As motion after motion shows, women are at the brunt of this. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that by 2019 1.1 million jobs will have been lost in the public sector, the majority of them women’s.
For women with jobs, low pay, zero-hours contracts, exploitative shift patterns and increased workloads as fewer and fewer people do more and more work are exposing them to a daily grind more associated with that of their great-grandmothers than the 21st century and casting them into poverty, vulnerability and ill-health.
More than a million families have resorted to payday loans to tide them over and thousands of those using foodbanks are in work. According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost two-thirds of those with mental health problems are women. Cuts in benefits, including child benefit and housing benefit, have disproportionately affected low-paid women.
Despite the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) finding Britain “seriously wanting” in a range of areas affecting women in the workplace and wider society, services on which women depend have been severely curtailed or cut. Women have had to shoulder the bulk of caring no longer provided from the public purse.
The extreme danger of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is highlighted, under which women’s access to essential services in healthcare and education will be even further limited, as will their workplace rights.
Domestic violence is exacerbated by poverty and women constitute the overwhelming majority of the victims. Ninety per cent of severe and repeated domestic violence is experienced by women. Two women a week in Britain are murdered by their violent partner, while 10 commit suicide to escape.
Services to support women experiencing violence are being eroded while at the same time the profit-driven objectification of women (fuelled by the mass media), pornography and sexual exploitation are growing exponentially. This endangers all women and girls.
Important as the ongoing analysis of the effect of austerity on women in Britain is, this year’s Southport agenda goes much further. There is a very clear recognition that cuts and privatisation are unnecessary and that women are prepared to stand up and fight together to ensure that women’s drudgery and exploitation — not their hard-won rights — that are eliminated for this generation and all generations to come. A motion from the women of Unison’s northern region captures in a sentence the mood of the agenda: “We are in a general election year and it is vital that our politicians at all levels recognise that women will not stand by and watch the hard-won rights and protections that have been gained through the decades be consigned to history.”
Action of all kinds is called for, making it clear that the support of Unison and the wider labour movement is imperative. Unison women have a long tradition of self-organisation that continues to ensure that women’s voices are heard and that women can play a confident and full part in the struggle of their union and the wider labour movement.
Women at Southport will put forward firm proposals for attracting women, and particularly young women, into union membership, encouraging and enabling women members to be active and organising so that women can achieve their potential.
In the short-term, female trade-unionists have a vital role to play in exposing the Tory-led agenda for all its cruelty and lies, mobilising women to defeat the Con-Dem regime at the coming election, demonstrating that austerity is unnecessary and winning support for a clearly articulated people’s alternative.
Taking the longer-term perspective, we must recognise that capitalism is utterly dependent on the exploitation of women’s labour and their unpaid work and that organising working women is crucial to the achievement of a just, equal and peaceful society.
Liz Payne is chair of the Communist Party of Britain